Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

If It Weren’t For Bad Luck, I’d Have No Luck At All…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 17, 2013

A few weeks ago, I joined my family for the board game Talisman. It’s the new version, released a couple of years ago, based on the classic 80’s board game that just so happens to be one of my wife’s favorites. My memories of the game were a bit less favorable. I remembered it being long and… really random. By random, I mean frustrating for me to play when the dice work against me.

So I played. We’d limited the time to play the game so it wasn’t quite so long. Everybody made some decent progress in the game, with some family members getting to the second tier of the game board pretty early on.

Me? I got turned into a toad three times in a row. The chance was pretty small, but apparently the dice were conspiring against me. I spent a half hour unable to do much but hop a single square. I went back to… was it the enchantress…? Already toadified, and thought, “Hey, I’m already a toad, so what have I got to lose? No way I’ll roll this a third time!” Right.

I left the game saying, “Yep, this is exactly how I remember this game.”

Strangely, I’ve never really felt compelled to play the lottery, either…

You’d think that with a few stories like this one (and I have a lot of ’em), I’d be in Craig Stern’s camp, and be all “randomness in RPGs, BOO!” But no, I’m actually a fan, seeing it much more like Daniel Cook in his article, “Understanding Randomness in Terms of Mastery.” Particularly with modern RPGs, I really tend to go with systems that allow enough strategy to either minimize the role of luck of I’m at an advantage (which in normal RPGs tends to be the norm), or to actually maximize its role when I’m at a disadvantage.  I try to see what I can do to get the numbers on my side (my side often meaning, “my team’s side” when I’m playing with others.) That skill – and being able to discern see through the random ‘noise’ as Daniel Cook explains it – are key items that make me feel like I’m in control of the game.

So if I’m so focused (usually) on marginalizing randomness, why do I not favor getting rid of it altogether?

In three words: Because it’s fun.

Sometimes a little too fun.


Likewise, the chance of failure makes even otherwise trivial actions more interesting. There may be a 92% chance of connecting, but that little 8% fail chance makes the eventual hit all that much sweeter.

But what about those days when the dice are cold, bad luck reigns, and things just turn against you even when you have every advantage in your corner?

Sometimes that can be kinda fun, too.


In a good gaming system, IMO, you still have options. The option may be “run away to live and fight another day.” It’s why I’m not a fan of “critical failures” all that much – or older editions of D&D which had frequent “save or die” rolls (although many editions of the game made that merely an expensive, not necessarily game-ending, problem). This is one reason I’m still okay with the “hit point” mechanic, in spite of its lack of realism: It allows non-critical attrition to occur so you have a reasonable chance of executing a “plan B.” Or “C” or “D.”

In human-moderated RPGs, even a poor system can be compensated for by a good game master. Even without fudging the rules, they can do things like deliberately forcing mistakes on the part of the bad guys to allow the players an opening to turn things around or escape. Unfortunately, computer games generally don’t do that.   But unless the games do the “permadeath” thing, there’s always the handy reloading the saved game option to compensate. But that’s a poor substitute for a good game system or a well-moderated one. Having to reload a saved game because of some randomly bad things happening is not fun. It feels arbitrary.

It just comes down to making sure that a little bit of bad luck doesn’t ruin the game. Major failure (the kind that requires a reload) shouldn’t feel arbitrary. This can be resolved by at least three ways:

#1 – The game system is forgiving enough with random chance that deviations are limited and have limited impact on the game. Most JRPGs (at least that I’ve played lately) are like this – misses and crits are rare, and damage is in an extremely predictable range. But the occasional misses and crits that give it some “spice.”

#2 – The game system grants the player the ability to ‘equalize’ bad luck (or setbacks) – like Frayed Knights‘ drama stars, or the ‘overdrive’ meter in (non-random!) fighting games which can fill up from (among other things) taking hits.

#3 – The game AI pulls the sort of dramatic intervention a human might in a dice-and-paper game, and tweaks AI skill or decision making to give an unlucky player an opening to recover from setbacks.

Chance can be a very fun element in games, but it can also suck the fun right out of a game if handled poorly, as I felt during the Talisman game. It really comes down to whether or not the players can feel like they are either the masters of the odds, or masters in spite of the odds. But they should not feel like they are at the mercy of the random number generator.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Felix said,

    Hear, hear. I always had terrible luck with dice, so as a kid I quickly learned to avoid most games involving randomness. There were exceptions, of course. For example, it was obvious to me even at a young age that backgammon is mainly a game of skill. But it took years, and much experience with computer games, to actually understand how that works, never mind write about it (shameless plug).

  • Silemess said,

    Chalk me up as another person who agrees with keeping luck in the game. Although, for me the dice play nice it’s cards that kill me.

    If it’s just flat strategy, then it’s easy for a game to get stale because there’s nothing to throw it off. Who wants to know the end state just from the start? And if luck overwhelms all, then there isn’t any real point to the fight. But if it’s there to spice things up, to leave you with that chance of taking it all or losing it, then there’s something of interest. Risk and Reward.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    For me, the quality of the game depends on how the player can react to the randomness. In the case of Talisman, it kinda does suck when you get toaded like that and all you can do is slowly move to get cured. (BTW, were you playing with the newest edition with fate tokens? Those help deal with some of the bad luck.)

    On the other hand, take a board game like Iron Dragon (or most other crayon rail games), where the cards you’re given are random, but it’s how you deal with your runs and your existing track that is interesting. Yeah, sometimes the randomness still screws you over, but much of the time when you fall behind it’s your own damned fault.

  • CdrJameson said,

    Having played Talisman again with the kids over the weekend it’s clear it’s a game of surfing the randomness, but you do have some choice. The dice suggest strategies, you roll with them. It’s practically Taoist.
    I got Poltergeisted and it was an absolute boon.

    And you don’t have to visit the Enchantress; It’s a pretty desperate move to take a 1:6 chance of basically losing the game.

  • Craig Stern said,

    “[R]andomness in RPGs, BOO!” is a pretty strange way to characterize an article whose ultimate point is “Randomized results have their role, but I’d like to see them used more deliberately.” :S

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    You’re the best example I’ve got of a designer emphasizing determinism in RPGs (and who has written about it, at least), and that was your most recent article explaining the design approach you’ve used for the Telepath series. It’s a nicely nuanced designed, which is why I wanted to reference it.

    I wanted to use it as contrast as I explained why I’m still – despite all odds (dumb reference intended) still in the “Randomness in RPGs, YAY!” side of things.